Supergirl 3×14: “Schott Through the Heart”, The Flash 4×18: “Lose Yourself”, Black Lightning 1×13: “Shadow of Death: The Book of War”, and Arrow 6×19: “The Dragon” reviews
Black Lightning wraps up, Supergirl returns, and The Flash and Arrow . . . continue. Let’s get to it!
Black Lightning 1×13: “Shadow of Death: The Book of War” review
Let’s play pretend for a moment.
Let’s pretend that this is not the season finale of Black Lightning. Let’s pretend that this episode ends just as the Pierce family escapes from the cabin and Proctor escapes from the ASA base, with the promise that the story will be continued next week.
I want to pretend that because, if you remove from it the burden of wrapping up the season, this was a stellar episode of Black Lightning, quite possibly the best one they’ve produced yet.
From the beginning, this has been a show about family. There have been other themes, of course, concerning crime, racism, activism, “the community”, but at the heart of all the show’s most pivotal moments has been the importance of family and the question of what members of a family owe to each other. This episode focuses in on that core theme, taking the Pierce family and “Uncle Gambi” away from Freeland and placing them in an isolated cabin, where they have no one to worry about or depend on but each other. And with the ASA closing in on them, and Jefferson still weak from last episode’s beatdown, the Pierces are forced into a desperate situation, to the point where they wonder, not how they’ll all get out of it, but who will have to sacrifice themselves so the others can escape.
But if there’s one overriding message throughout Black Lightning, it’s that, when you’re part of a family, your burdens are never just your burdens, and your sacrifices are never just your sacrifices. Throughout the season, Jefferson has chosen to risk his own life and freedom to make Freeland a better place for his family, while trying to shield them from the pain and violence he goes through for them, and prevent them from taking the same risks he does. But that separation is a losing proposition. Whether it’s finding their husband or father bleeding in a bathtub, being hurt by villains trying to hurt him, or discovering powers he passed down to them: what Jefferson goes through for his family, his family goes through with him.
Alvin Pierce once risked everything to build a better world for his son, and because of that, Jefferson watched as his own father was murdered, an event that’s left its scar on him even now. Despite this, Jefferson is prepared to make that same choice, going into certain death against the ASA if it means his family can escape. But this generation of Pierces does not allow that to happen. They stand beside him, fight beside him, literally give him the power he needs to win. They will not let him sacrifice himself, because they will not sacrifice him. They will stand together and prevail as a family, because “This is what we do.”
As a mission statement, as an expression of the show’s core theme, and as a tense hour of television built on strong character work, this episode was superb.
As a season finale, however? Hoo boy, does this episode have some problems.
Let’s start with that ending. Anyone here ever watch another CW show called No Tomorrow? That series ended its first season on a cliffhanger before being cancelled. When it started streaming on Netflix, a short scene/montage was tacked onto the end of the final episode that quickly resolved all unresolved plot and character arcs, so at least the series would have some closure. That’s what this ending feels like.
After the Pierces escape the cabin, they’re suddenly at the facility where all the abducted kids are stored, with no explanation for how they found out where it was or got there before Proctor. And Proctor himself? Turns out his whole Green Light project was never approved by the government, so the one thing that made him threatening (having the might of a clandestine government agency behind him) was just a smokescreen, and now our heroes can kill him without repercussion. And the dying kids held in suspended animation? Lynn says she knows someone who can help them, and that’s all we get before immediately cutting to a montage of news reports, indicating the whole Green Light project got exposed to the public off-screen.
All of that happens in a single, short scene. And after that news montage, all we see of our main characters is them going for a jog and laughing while Jennifer gives us some voiceover narration. The End.
That’s barely a satisfactory way of ending a villain-of-the-week episode, but to end your season’s story arc in such a rushed manner? It honestly feels like the story was plotted to last more episodes than it did, so when they reached the end of their 13 episode order, they resolved the plot as quickly as possible just so they could say they did.
But if the ending of the main story arc was rushed and poorly done, at least it didn’t get a completely pointless ending, like Lala’s story arc. Lala came back from the dead in Episode 7, and for most of the episodes since then, he’s appeared in at least a few scenes, building up the mystery behind how he came back, and seemingly grooming him to be a new major villain, amassing power in Freeland’s underworld.
Then he blows himself up. Turns out Tobias brought him back to life by paying for a “resurrection program” (that’s all the explanation we get) and he forces Lala to set off a bomb in his chest, accomplishing nothing. You could remove every single scene Lala’s had since coming back to life, and I can’t think of one goddamn bit of difference it would make.
Sure, if he’s come back from the dead once, maybe he’ll come back in Season 2 even after being blown up. But if we have to wait till next season for resurrected Lala to have any sort of bearing on the plot, why was his resurrection even in this season? Why did we spend so much time giving him his own subplot across multiple episodes, if the season finale was just going to write him out before he can do anything of consequence?
Tobias and his other minions fare a little better, only because no effort is made to resolve their storyline, instead setting them up to be next year’s baddies. It’s better than going down in a blaze of anticlimax, but it does feel weird, given how prominent Tobias was in the first half of the season, and given his whole archnemesis deal with Black Lightning, that the two never even cross paths in the finale.
Beyond unresolved plot threads, this episode also lacks a suitably epic climax. The big battle between the Pierce family and the ASA was awesome, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still our heroes beating up a bunch of anonymous ASA goons, like they have a bunch of times before. The only new wrinkle added is that Lynn and Jennifer get in on the action. For what turns out to be our final showdown with the ASA, nothing’s done to real make it feel final showdown-y.
Look, the people who made this particular episode, the writers, the directors, the actors? They all did fantastic work. But whoever was in charge of organizing this season’s overall story really dropped the ball, just didn’t give its conclusion the time or the thought needed to make a satisfying finish.
Maybe it’s unfair to judge a story by how it ends rather than by what it did on the way there. And Black Lightning has already been renewed for a second season, so it’s not like this was a final ending. Still, both this episode and the back half of this season were going so strong, it’s a shame to see them stumble so hard over the finish line.
The Flash 4×18: “Lose Yourself” review
A lot of people don’t like it when The Flash goes dark, when it shows our heroes failing and left mourning in the wake of tragedy.
I can understand that sentiment. When The Flash debuted, a large part of its appeal was how it embraced fun and extravagance over realism, and filled its cast with friendly and optimistic characters who spoke earnestly about the power of family and friendship. And certainly, in the last couple seasons, some of the show’s weakest moments have come when it abandoned that sense of joy and optimism, and made our heroes’ struggles so hopeless that watching them fail, and mope about their failure, week after week, became a slog.
But I don’t think dark storylines have really been the core problem. The Flash’s first season finale is regarded by many (myself included) as the show’s finest episode, and it was incredibly dark. Eddie committed suicide. Barry failed to save his parents, and had to stand by as his mother was murdered. The city was left on the edge of destruction. And (speaking personally) Dr. Wells broke my heart a little with four simple words: “Because I hate you.”
What makes that dark subject matter work is that it’s dynamic: bad things are happening, but they’re moving the story forward and adding new elements to the story. Where last season’s battle against Savitar often went wrong was that the darkness was stagnant: our heroes were desperate to stop the bad guy, tried to stop him, failed, and were left back where they started, only with added guilt and frustration over their failure. Watching things get worse for our heroes is almost always more compelling than watching things simply stay bad.
I won’t deny there have been points in Season 4 where The Flash has fallen back on stagnant darkness, but I would say the DeVoe storyline has overall done an excellent job making the villains’ victories and our heroes’ failures feel dynamic, and this episode is a good example of that.
It begins in a fairly been-there-done-that fashion, with Team Flash tracking down the last unlocated bus meta and coming up with a strategy to use against the Tinker, which will almost certainly fail because the season’s not over for another five episodes. But Team Flash doesn’t merely fail here; the instant they launch their mission, the DeVoes launch their own attack on Star Labs.
Bad guys have broken into Star Labs so many times, it’s become a running joke. Still, the notion of the villain invading our heroes’ sanctum remains a potent idea, and the little touch that, because the Thinker is using Kilgore’s power, all the lights in Star Labs turn purple, makes their violation of what’s meant to be a place of safety hit hard.
And this is no mere harry-the-heroes-than-retreat mission. By episode’s end, all the bus metas collected/recruited by Team Flash are dead, their bodies and powers taken by the Thinker. Well-meaning but wildly unhelpful Matthew Kim. Flamboyant jewel thief Janet Petty. Cheerful stoner Edwin Gauss.
And Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man.
I’ll admit, Ralph’s demise didn’t hit as hard as it was probably meant to. So much time has been spent on him this season, I’m confident he’ll be back in some fashion. But Barry and the rest of Team Flash don’t know they’re in a TV show. They saw their friend taken by the Thinker, pulled out every trick they could think of to stop him, and it still wasn’t enough. And in the process, Harry fried his own mind, and Caitlin lost Killer Frost to the Thinker’s touch.
The fight for the bus metas is over, and the Thinker won.
It is a dark episode, but it’s a dark episode that’s moving us forward, towards whatever “The Enlightenment” holds.
And when Barry cleans out Ralph’s old office, refusing to use his speed in a form of penance he can’t quite articulate, it’s a reminder that this isn’t just a show about cold guns and talking gorillas and how running really fast can solve everything. There’s always been a current of sadness to this version of Barry Allen, of grief for the people he’s lost. He shouldn’t wallow in that grief, both for his own good and for the good of the show, but taking a moment to slow down and mourn a friend’s passing is not something we should begrudge either of them.
Arrow 6×19: “The Dragon” review
Last week I wondered if Arrow was trying to correct some of the missteps it’s made this season. After watching “The Dragon”, I’m more positive than ever that that’s exactly what’s happening.
Until now, Ricardo Diaz has been utterly underwhelming as a villain. In his first appearance, he was simply the head of a small criminal outfit, no different from a hundred other villains-of-the-week; the only reason to think he might be anything more was that he escaped at the end of the episode, and that he shared a name with a character from the comics.
In subsequent episodes, he was part of Cayden James’s cabal of villains, where he did next to nothing besides round out their numbers. When the reveal came that he doctored the video that manipulated Cayden into action, it played less like he was being built up for this role, and more like the writers wanted to give this reveal to someone, and Diaz, being a blank slate of a character, could be slotted into the role more easily than well-established bad guys like Laurel or Anatoly.
Since then, the show has tried to cast Diaz as being the true master villain of the season, has repeatedly had characters tell us he’s a major threat that our heroes might not be able to defeat. That’s what we’ve been told, but the only thing we’ve seen that sets Diaz apart from any other gangster is that he has a lot of public officials on his payroll. That’s it. No apocalyptic master plan, no amazing martial arts skills, no superpowers, no psychological insight into our heroes, no ninja army at his beck and call. Nothing that even comes close to living up to the standard set by the Big Bads before him.
As long as the show kept building Diaz up as a seemingly insurmountable threat, the lack of any substance behind that threat became increasingly laughable. That Diaz also lacked much in the way of personality or charisma only made the problem worse.
Well, it may have come late in the season, and it may have required devoting an entire episode to him, but “The Dragon” at last fixes Arrow’s Diaz problem. Rather than continue to tout Diaz as an all-powerful nemesis, this episode acknowledges that Diaz is a simple gangster who has suddenly catapulted to prominence, and makes that an actual character arc for him.
Removed from Star City and the network he’s built there, with only Laurel for backup, we get to see Diaz as vulnerable, a man who has to swallow his pride and grovel before the crime syndicate called the Quadrant, and almost dies at their hands, saved by little more than luck. To the Quadrant, who control all organized crime in the United States, Diaz is nothing but a loser, a petty thug they can exploit. But Diaz wants to change that, wants to rise above what he’s been and become a member of the Quadrant, someone worthy of calling himself a crime lord . . . and worthy of calling himself Arrow’s Big Bad.
It’s an interesting route to take. Previous Big Bads have always come on the scene fully formed, secure in their powers and with their master plans well under way. But Diaz here is presented as a bad guy who’s still struggling to make it big, to scrape his way up from the simple drug dealer we first saw him as. By episode’s end, he’s gotten his seat at the Quadrant’s table, has the power to finally be a worthy threat to Team Arrow, but seeing how he had to fight and bleed to make his way there casts him in a different light. This is no longer the story of our scrappy heroes up against an overpowering foe, but of them against an enemy who’s just as scrappy and desperate for victory as they are.
That’s a dynamic we haven’t seen from Arrow before. With only four episodes left in the season, who knows whether they’ll build a satisfying finish out of it. But as a course correction for a season full of missteps, it’s an intriguing way of taking a flaw with the main villain and turning it into something interesting.
Maybe I’m just setting myself up for disappointment, but there could be hope for this season yet.
Supergirl 3×14: “Schott Through the Heart” review
Wow, it’s been a long time since we had a new episode of Supergirl to talk about. And it’s a Winn centric episode! We haven’t had one of those since . . . gosh, Season 2?
It’s a little disappointing to get a largely standalone episode when our last, pre-hiatus episode ended on some major cliffhangers. But I can’t fault the episode itself, ‘cause it was solid all around.
Something “Schott Through the Heart” handles remarkably well is the mystery surrounding who is carrying out Toyman’s revenge. Oh, the ultimate reveal is pretty ho-hum; basically just the Toyman’s version of Harley Quinn. But prior to that reveal, the mystery works wonderfully, for one simple reason: no one ever suggests Winn’s mother might be behind it.
That would certainly have been the easy way to create conflict this episode. Winn’s mom shows back up in his life just as Toyman-inspired attacks occur, and she reveals that she wasn’t just married to the Toyman, but was his protégé? She might as well have “Most Likely Suspect” written on her forehead. It’s easy to imagine a different version of this episode where the DEO suspects her of orchestrating the attacks, she insists on her innocence, and Winn has to struggle with whether to trust her or not.
But, of course, it’s never the most likely suspect. If the episode had gone that route, those of us at home would have realized that, if they’re trying so hard to make her seem guilty, she must really be innocent. What the episode does instead, making her a very obvious suspect, but never having anyone within the show actually suspect her? That lets us in the audience think maybe the show’s trying to trick us, that in the third act they’ll reveal she’s the villain as a “twist”. Which makes her turning out to really be on-the-up-and-up a pleasant surprise.
And by not going the obvious everyone-suspects-her route, the conflict between Winn and his mother is allowed to grow from a much more natural place, and be far more complicated. Winn’s relationship with his father, while not uncomplicated, was still based on the fact that his dad was a thoroughly bad person who Winn wanted nothing to do with. And when Winn’s mother appears, he shows her much the same anger and lack of affection he showed his father. But her motives and connection to Winn prove to be far more messy.
She’s not a monster who saw her son as merely another piece of handiwork. She was a victim of Winn’s father, too, and everything she did, she did only to protect Winn. Her flaw is not a moral failing, but letting her fear of Winn’s father blind her to the harm she was doing her son by abandoning him all those years. It’s the kind of conflict where you can understand everyone’s side, where you want everyone to get what they want, and seeing that happen by the end warms the cockles of your heart.
It helps that Laurie Metcalf puts in a great performance as Winn’s mom. She has to seem sad and penitent over what she put Winn through, but she also has to seem fun and lively enough that you can believe Winn would be much happier with this woman in his life. That she can pull of both, and flow from one to the other naturally, was absolutely vital to making the character work, and I hope we get to see more from her as the season continues.
Of course, mysteries and rich character relationships are all well and good, but this is a superhero show: we need some over-the-top action, too. And “Schott Through the Heart” delivers.
This episode gets some amazingly goofy fight scenes out of the killer toy concept. Compare it to the original Toyman episode, which mostly stuck to just toys that exploded or released poison gas. Here, we have a swarm of killer robot monkeys, a rampaging T-rex animatronic, a giant claw machine, toy cars shooting lasers, and even Supergirl being put in a plastic case like a collectible. The show just goes all out making the villain’s gimmick as wild and outlandish as possible, and it is crazy fun.
Speaking of crazy fun . . . karaoke. I just . . . there are so many great moments here, I don’t even know what to single out. No, wait, yes I do:
- Jefferson’s flashbacks bleeding into a dream/vision conversation with his father was a very neat touch. This episode’s black-and-white flashbacks very much feel like a callback to the stylized black-and-white-except-for-blood-red flashbacks in the pilot.
- Did Gambi also kill that ASA lab technician? ‘Cause he knows the Pierces’ secret identities now, too.
- So what’s in the briefcase that has Tobias so excited? My money’s on either the formula for Green Light, or Marsellus Wallace’s soul.
- Gambi gives a very clunky string of exposition on what powers Tobias, Syonide, and Khalil (a.k.a. Painkiller) all have. It would’ve been nice to get this information before they had a big brawl with Jefferson and Anissa last episode; knowing Tobias and Syonide had powers, too, would have made it seem a little more even.
- Something else that makes this dark episode of The Flash go down smooth? Some kick-ass fight scenes. Joe vs. Samuroid, Ralph vs. T-Rex, The Thinker vs. Everyone: all great. But the real highlight was Iris vs. Marlize, a.k.a. Katana vs. Blaster, a.k.a. “Get out of my office”. Like, can Barry and Clifford just go on vacation, and let the show just be about these two ladies for a while?
- I will say that I wasn’t fond of the whole To Kill Or Not To Kill thing going on between Barry and Ralph. While theoretically a juicy subject, superhero shows rarely have any sort of nuanced discussion on the matter, instead just insisting that heroes who kill inevitably lose an important part of themselves. Though Barry did at least make a distinction between self-defense and premeditated murder, which is more than some superheroes do.
- Previously on Arrow, I had not cared much at all for Kirk Acevedo’s performance as Diaz. Turns out I shouldn’t have blamed the actor, though: this week, when he has actual good material to work with, he gives the character a much needed dose of charisma, and a sense of an inner life.
- Diaz and Laurel going on an ultra-violent buddy movie proved to be a lot of fun. It makes me wish Oliver and Company would abandon the No Kill Code, because watching these two tear people apart reminds me how Arrow’s fight scenes are often at their best when they go brutal.
- In the non-Diaz subplot, Felicity worrying over Oliver now that she can no longer keep watch over him from the bunker was sweet, endearing, and an all-too-rare case of the characters just being allowed to be human, without needing to advance any sort of plot.
- Oliver’s explanation of how he escaped an explosion (“I fired a grappling arrow. I flew backwards right out of there. I’m fine.”) is hilariously
- The DEO has only slightly more security than Star Labs, and just like on The Flash, Supergirl is starting to hang a lampshade on that fact.
- Even if Mon-El wasn’t an awful singer, “Carry On My Wayward Son” is a terrible karaoke choice. It’s, like, 70% instrumental. For most of the song, you’re just gonna be standing on stage awkwardly.
MVP of the Week: Alvin Pierce.
Who doesn’t need some real talk about life from their ghost dad?
Question of the Week: If you could bring one dead character back to life, who would it be?